When I was a high school student searching for a theme for an English paper — when I was really, really desperate — there were always two safe bets. One was the classic: “love/hate relationship” – a bland chestnut that could be applied poorly to any character, in any setting, with any conflict, for any reason – with innocuous results, of course. And the other was the equally insipid topic of “man’s inhumanity to man.”
Two examples of the latter jumped out of the newspapers and practically dope-slapped me this week, and I’d like to talk about them this morning. First, the US recently apologized to Guatemala because we discovered that in the 1940’s, American doctors deliberately infected Guatemalan prisoners and mental institution inmates with sexually –transmitted diseases as part of a medical study.
Think about that for just a second. This has to be the ultimate triumph of the left over the right brain. And remember, too: not just any bozo can prance into medical school. While these professionals are often considered the best and brightest, you don’t need to be a regular at the annual Mensa picnic to instantly realize what a monstrously evil experiment this was. The root cause, of course, is that even though those doctors were well educated from the ears up, they were sorely lacking in heart, compassion, and soul.
The second example is a bit closer to us in time and space. Last week, a first year student at Rutgers University, the state university of New Jersey, thought it would be funny to set up a hidden camera in his dormitory room in order to catch and then display his roommates’ private moments. His roommate, after all, was gay and wouldn’t it be hilarious to expose him via the internet? When Tyler Clementi, the victim in all of this, realized that his private life had become public, he decided to commit suicide. He was 19.
The issue here isn’t only about Tyler’s orientation, because a violation of anyone’s privacy is clearly and utterly wrong. But we can’t ignore the fact that some gay adolescents are extraordinarily vulnerable; they are, for example, four times more likely to commit suicide than their peers.
Sociologists now wonder if the new social media may be making us more callous, but I think these modern tools only serve to expose what is already there. Or in this case, expose what is not there, which is some basic recognition of the other guy. A sense of compassion. A sense of decency.
It’s been said that there really is no such thing as an original sin – that it’s the same sin we keep committing over and over again. And that sin is the failure to recognize the humanity of those who are different from us. What’s particularly galling about these two cases is that in both the victims were already marginalized. Life as a Guatemalan prisoner or as a mental detainee in the 40’s would not have been like life as it is lived in 90210. And being a gay first-year college student, trying to sort through all of the challenges of adolescent life in North Jersey is not a game for the weak of heart either.
This morning as we sit here in Laidlaw Hall, it’s easy enough for us to distance ourselves from those mad medical doctors and that particularly heartless Rutgers student. But I wonder, if there are times when we, too, suffer from the same disease? Are there moments when we also come up short, instances when we fail to recognize the plight of the other guy?
Let me give you just one recent example of inhumanity from right here at UCC. A while back I learned that a first-year student was being picked on by a classmate. Before pulling the aggressor into my office, I tried to use my personal “pause button” because, if there is one thing that absolutely drives me nuts, it’s bullying. I cannot stand it when those with some sense of power abuse the smaller, weaker, or more vulnerable.
I deliberately began the conversation in a calm and measured voice with the question: “Do you know why I want to talk to you?” He nodded his head slowly, and he looked at the floor before starting to cry.
“Power,” I thought to myself, “you’ve done it once more. Your deft touch, your sensitivity, your incredible EQ –– you have done your magic yet again. The legend grows.”
But then he started to talk, and the magic disappeared. “I know why you want to see me, “ he blubbered. “It’s about yesterday’s English test!” As he sniffled, a very small part of me was flattered that this young scholar thought I was so on top of my game that I was tracking the daily year 1 grades the way a Goldman guy might follow the stock market.
When I explained the real reason for our meeting, the student stared at me in apparent disbelief. “But Biff (not the victim’s real name, by the way) is one of my friends. I chirp him sure, but we all do, and I can tell it’s ok. He’s good with it. It’s. He even laughs sometimes.”
I offer three take-aways this morning:
1. We aren’t always able to read or understand others all that well. We need to work on that. The year 1 kid who laughs when he’s being picked on does so — NOT because he thinks something is funny — but because that’s the only way he can cope with the situation. We have to understand and be able to put ourselves in the shoes of “the other” – whether the other is a classmate, a roommate, someone from another part of town, or someone from another country. We need to be especially tuned into this if the other person is in any well less powerful or less comfortable than we are.
2. If you are ever a victim, it’s important to know that you are not alone. There are people here who want to help. You should know that you can approach any of your teachers, coaches, advisors, professionals in the Health Centre, or administrators. I hope you know you can turn to any of them for any help at any time.
3. Once we understand what’s going on, it’s not enough to say, “Tsk. Tsk. Isn’t that terrible.” We have to be willing to step up to meet the moment. That requires courage. Aristotle said, “We learn courage by doing courageous things.” It’s not about reading a book or conducting a lab experiment or thinking a particularly lofty thought. It’s about sticking your neck out, and that is a hard, hard thing to do, especially at your age. But it’s worth it. If even one doctor or if even a single Rutgers student had pushed back, the world would be a better place.
Last Thursday morning when a young Old Boy, now a university rower, went out to the water for training, he learned that practice had been cancelled. Tyler Clementi’s body was there on the dock, and suddenly rowing, not even Ivy League rowing, seemed all that important.
What is important, though, is that we learn to be there for one another. Because if the “band of brothers” we now enjoy signifies anything, it has to mean we look out for those who sometimes feel left out.